DOJ: Alabama Immigration Law Raised School Absences

The U.S. Justice Department released a letter saying Alabama's controversial immigration law had "significant and measurable" impacts on schoolchildren.
by | May 4, 2012

By Brian Lyman

The Justice Department released a letter late Thursday afternoon, hours after six individuals protesting Alabama's immigration law conducted a sit-down demonstration near the Alabama Senate chamber, saying Alabama's controversial immigration law had "significant and measurable" impacts on schoolchildren.

The letter, written by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez, said Section 28 of the current law, known as HB 56, could "implicate" the 1964 Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination in public schools and programs that receive federal assistance.

The Justice Department sent the letter, dated May 1, to state superintendent Tommy Bice. It focuses on the section of the law that requires school districts to collect information on immigration status from students at the time of enrollment. The law does not ban undocumented aliens from attending school, a right that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982's Plyler v. Doe.

A federal appeals court enjoined Section 28 last fall; it was in effect for about two weeks.

Kevin Turner, Chief Deputy Attorney General for the Alabama Attorney General's Office, which is defending the state against lawsuits brought against the statute, said the office had no comment on the letter.

'Chill or discourage'

After U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn allowed most sections of the law to go into effect on Sept. 29, a number of schools around the state reported unusually high absence rates among Hispanic students. The school section was blocked by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 14, but Perez wrote that the legislation "had continuing effects" on schoolchildren after the section was blocked.

"Many Hispanic students reported staying home from or withdrawing from school out of fear that they would be questioned regarding their immigration status, or that of their family members," he wrote. "Hispanic students further reported being singled out to receive notices or attend assemblies about HB 56, based on their actual or perceived national origin or immigration status."

The letter said DOJ drew its evaluations from data provided by the Alabama State Department of Education and interviews with "students, parents, teachers and administrators." The letter did not state how many interviews were conducted; the Justice Department did not return a message seeking comment on the letter Thursday evening.

Perez sent a letter to Alabama school superintendents in November, saying Section 28 of the law may "chill or discourage" some students from attending school. The Justice Department requested information on "enrollment practices;" school superintendents said at the time that their enrollment information did not include data about race or national origin.

The Assistant Attorney General wrote that Section 28 may "implicate" Titles IV and VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ban discrimination in public schools and in institutions receiving federal funding. Perez also wrote the Equal Education Opportunities Act requires states to take "appropriate action" to ensure that schools take "affirmative measures" to ensure English Language Learners receive public school services.

Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, dismissed the letter, noting the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit against the state over HB 56.

"The Department of Justice has already made it clear they're on the side of illegal immigration," he said. "Anything they say or do to try to bully the state of Alabama or other states across the country does not surprise me at all."

Protest

Earlier in the day, six protesters sang and prayed for the repeal of the controversial statute outside the Alabama Senate chambers.

The protest was peaceful, with the six singing "Amazing Grace" and "This Little Light of Mine."

The Senate is expected to consider changes to the law that passed the House last month. A date has not been set. Opponents have called for the repeal of the law, and have increased demonstrations and protests over HB 56 at the State House in recent weeks.

"The purpose was twofold," said Rev. Angie Wright, a member of the group called Alabama's Conscience, which seeks repeal of the law. "One purpose was to express moral outrage and opposition to HB 56, Alabama's inhumane immigration law, and secondly to challenge the Senate to take action and to move through their fear of standing up to the opposition they face."

The protesters wore white T-shirts with "Repeal Alabama's Pain" written in red. Hope Hamilton Schumacher of Birmingham, one of the protesters, called "For all mothers separated from their children," as security came by. Schumacher brought her baby with her to protest; the child was given to another member in the crowd before Schumacher was arrested.

"Stop the pain of Alabama," said Salvadore Cervantes of Montgomery as he was detained.

The protesters were detained but never arrested, and released later in the day.

Pat Harris, the secretary of the Senate who presides over the daily operations of the chamber, said they were handcuffed initially after they blocked the walkways outside of the Senate chamber.

After they had been asked to move out of the aisle, he said, some began to assemble again in the walkway. "We made the decision not to press any charges," Harris said.

(c)2012 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)

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